most astounding facts

One of my reliable nightmares involves getting thrust into the center of a situation in which I have absolutely no expertise and absolutely no right. I am the quarterback in the center of a huddle in the middle of an important game, or dropped upon a Shakespearean stage in front of an audience on opening night. In each case, the dream grants me an awareness that I don’t know what plays to call or what lines to recite, but simultaneously the right strings are pulled and I’m a puppet that goes through all the right motions in my own dream. Somehow it works out only well enough that I don’t get yelled at, but I’m clearly in the wrong place, and I wake up shaken.

I just finished a three-night run with this semester’s dance production (you can go back to the beginning of this sentence to be sure you read it correctly), where my nightmares came true under full spotlight. It’s a long story, but my role was originally simply to consult on how to incorporate science into the production, later to lead to partnerships with schools. Somehow, the possibility that I could demonstrate a physics concept led to the possibility that I could say something which led to the possibility that I could be there in the midst of the performance. And so I, initially lying flat upon a stage, am literally surrounded by a circle of dancers as they move, elegantly and deliberately, around me. My self-perceived schtick in this — what I was telling myself to characterize — was that I should show a sense of panic and confusion. It turns out, from dress rehearsals forward, that this wasn’t hard, not even an act. Surrounded by dancers, getting up to face the bright lights, and confronting a sea of dark stage, I’m consumed by a form of honest terror.

While being at the center of this even briefly wasn’t anticipated a couple months ago, I’ve come to learn immensely from the experience. More than I could see from the sidelines, I’ve realized a concentration and intensity to what takes place that I’m in awe of. The choreography, the lighting, and costumes, and especially the dancing are all the result of a tremendous accumulation of time and effort. And so my other concentration is simply to make sure I don’t screw up what they’re doing. (At one point I’m supposed to walk on stage with a leaf blower, and my fear is that I’ll step out too soon and start ruining the entire show with a loud electric motor and a burst of air.)

My initiation was to emerge from the circle of dancers to introduce “The Most Astounding Fact.” We use this phrase, taken from a line that Neil deGrasse Tyson uses in an interview, as a focus in this dance-science collaboration. I step out and introduce where this is all going with some narration that is in concert with the choreography. It opens with: “The most astounding fact is that everything is made from countless particles …”And I go on to describe those particles, pause, start to walk forward as if I’m finished, but then I think of something else: “Or, the most astounding fact is that this space is flooded with those particles …” And I go on some more. And then step forward and offer another possible “most astounding fact,” starting with “Or…” The idea — something that is much better in practice when there are dancers behind me and it’s all part of something grander — is that there are so many possibilities for “most astounding,” and that each time you reconsider the ordinary you can find something completely, ridiculously mind-stretching.

During rehearsal while other pieces were running, I was going over my lines by writing them out by hand, re-conceptualizing and trying to internalize them. As I wrote out “the most astounding fact” with the dancers on stage, I had a flurry of other “most astoundings” that flooded my psyche, not at all about what I was supposed to be memorizing but what was right there in front of me. These have continued to pile up, and they do a pretty good job of giving glimpses, but not really fully explaining, what I’m learning from this project.

The most astounding fact is that a dancer can stand on one foot, the other leg horizontal to the floor with arms outstretched and the body in rotation. I can’t get over this, even just the standing on one foot part. It’s a great physics problem, and an even greater physical accomplishment.

Or, perhaps the most astounding fact is that each dancer remembers a piece of a whole. There is a compiled memory stored in the collective, and each part — each dancer and each phrase — contributes to that. There’s an organism created out of the whole of the ensemble, and the choreographer can refer to that ensemble to replay the piece or pick out any detail from it.

Or, that each dancer is a full person. They are each the dancer on the stage, but there’s so much more that I’m, at best, only intermittently and vaguely aware of. Tragedy and celebration are all in the background, but on stage we see them as a whole other entity. They are spouses and students. There is heartbreak. Someone must have a math test tomorrow. Someone is missing a meal with a loved one. Someone just had an argument with a loved one. Someone is carrying the anticipation of a math test or an argument or a funny joke or a gift for their mother, or all of this, all while they’re standing on one foot and rotating about a vertical axis.

Or, the most astounding fact is that no one’s gotten hurt. Or: That dancers get hurt all the time. There are ice packs and bandages and creams and stretching, and I’m sure there’s more I don’t know about.

The most astounding fact is that people don’t get sick and that they’re always here. Or, the most astounding fact is that there’s an understudy who has to step in for the person who’s missing one night, and everyone rolls with the changes. And, frankly the person filling in as an understudy for a part that she’d never performed, was inspirational. And another dancer stepped in for another part that required spoken lines she’d never rehearsed. And everyone else had to fill other gaps, roll with things that were unanticipated. It was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen.

Or: That everything is choreographed explicitly. Everything is dictated by an orchestrated sequence that’s been rehearsed tirelessly. Everything is perfectly scripted, down to each single twist.

Or: That so much is not choreographed. A piece of paper falls; I say the wrong word; a path is slightly downstage. All of these possibilities require an adjustment that must look like it was meant to be. And it does.

Or, perhaps the most astounding fact is that the dance is composed of not only the dancers and the movement, but by the space. The space between a dancer at the front of the stage and an ensemble lined upstage, watching her across a gulf of dark floor that could just as well be a deep chasm.

Or the costumes or the lighting or the music. Or the choreography and the stage direction. I’m always learning more about the layers upon layers that go into this. Dancers don’t get to work with the stage and the lighting until the week of the performance. They don’t get to wear the costumes — which can be totally different from what they’re used to wearing — until two nights before. All of this comes together, and when I see all of those pieces all planned and all layered, I wonder why we can’t do simple things, like resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or reverse climate change.

Or, the most astounding fact is the incredible amount of work and time that goes into this. There are the classes. And then there’s the Saturday devoted to “tech” — figuring out when and where lighting and stage direction and sound and curtains and all the stuff I thought just happens. And then rehearsal after the tech. And then the following week there are still classes, but rehearsals, and then there is class followed by dress rehearsal and class followed by performances. And then someone had to strike the stage after all the performances. I got to come home and have a beer. People prepared and debriefed as well as performed. As for myself, I was told to show up wearing pants — the costume designer supplied an appropriate shirt.

The most astounding fact is that the dancing is flawless. Except when it isn’t. “I guess it could be worse; maybe people can’t tell,” says half of a duet pair after they finish their performance. I knew that people couldn’t tell, because there was so much that works so seamlessly, even the mistakes, that nothing seems amiss. Moreover, what goes right isn’t just technically right, but artistically right. There is so much to be entranced with something so well created that I don’t think anyone can even imagine what could be wrong.

But really, the dancing is flawless. Every mistake that could be made is made in advance. The outcome of the performance is dictated by the months of work and preparation well before they’re on the stage, in the costumes, in the lights. Dancers are ready to adjust to anything, and they find a way back in, all in flux but all in line.

The most amazing fact is how beautiful the dancing is. The beauty is in the turn or the leap, the fall of a piece of paper or the space between or the line of a dancer. But also it’s in an essence that gets created by the motion and the space, the choreography and the costume, the music and the lighting. There are moments that I see over and over and I still want to see them again: the moment a dancer takes on an added amount of inertia from a piece of paper and she crumples and slows; or the turn of a single dancer while getting a piece of paper to move with the flow of her hand; or the wave that a line of dancers creates; or that standing on one foot thing. From backstage I know what’s about to happen, and instead of becoming nonchalant about it I anticipate and look forward to it. Every time.

Maybe the most astounding fact is that in all of the flawlessness, there’s always something else to work on. Students choreograph pieces that other students dance. The choreographer gives feedback on each performance, whether it’s rehearsal or dress rehearsal or performance. Each iteration has the opportunity for adjustment. I listen to this, or to the suggestions of a professor, and I wonder “why is there always something else to work on?” And the answer is simple. It’s because there’s always something else to work on; and it isn’t because there was something wrong before, but because as each thing becomes more and more right, more and more nuanced, more and more flawless, there is another idea, another element, another possibility. It makes me a little tired. And it’s exciting. These pieces are always changing, even from one performance to the next.

Or, the most astounding fact is this: I’m happy to admit that I don’t understand dance. I’ve had too many people say that they understand physics up until they try to solve a problem and just can’t see what they could be doing wrong. Or that they get the idea of quantum mechanics — no one understands quantum mechanics, and especially not the people who say they do. (Except that one guy, but we all hate him.) I suspect dance is like quantum mechanics in that way. People who actually know what they’re talking about can describe dance really well, but they still explore it to really understand more. I’m privileged and glad that I get to play along, lying there on the stage, and participate in all I don’t understand, and all that I’m astounded by.